Scooter madness rides into campus

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Scooter madness rides into campus


Why does Nam Hye-rim, 21, say she “had to buy a scooter” six months ago?
Was it rising gas prices? Partly, yes: It costs only 5,000 won ($5.36) to fill a 5-liter (1.3 gallon) scooter tank, which lasts at least three days. Was it the scooter’s ability to weave through Seoul’s notoriously clogged traffic? Definitely.
Ms. Nam worships her scooter because, she says proudly, it cuts her commute to school in half, giving her more time to sleep in. She lives in Yongsan, central Seoul. Her school, Seoil University, is located in Myeonmok-dong, eastern Seoul.
“The train ride takes a full hour in the morning and you have to transfer twice,” she explained.
She worked extra hours after school (and ended up even taking a semester leave) to collect the 2 million won she needed to purchase her orange Mio100, a Taiwan-made mini scooter, to take her to her school. “I arrive at school in under 30 minutes now that I’m on my scooter,” she said as she patted the scooter next to her.
Ms. Nam is one of the many college students these days who have turned into scooter enthusiasts. Evidence of their popularity abounds: The bicycle racks in the parking lot in front of the library at Yonsei University, for instance, have been removed to allow parking for up to 50 scooters.
“I did try riding [a scooter] once when I was in my freshman year,” said Park Chan-kyu, 28, a Yonsei University student who was back in school after finishing his military service. “But that was several years ago, when guys rode the bigger plastic ones that made more noise.
“I stopped riding them because there was this idea that motor bikes were loud and dangerous, used mostly by groups of delinquents,” he said, shrugging. “It seems now that these mini scooters are in fashion.”
Yonsei’s other parking lots were equally stocked. Scooters sat lined up in neat rows of jet black, hot pink, shiny silver and flaming red.
“What’s important to us is whether the scooters are cute and good-looking,” said Kim Han-wool, a 24-year-old engineering major, who said he wipes his black Venus bike with a dry cloth every day. “These mini bikes are slower and a bit more uncomfortable than the conventional motorbikes, but they are really cute, aren’t they?”
Lee Jeong-wu, 24, said he has bought a new scooter every year for three years. To cut costs, he buys used scooters for half the regular price, then upgrades their engines and repaints them.
“Design and color are crucial matters for owners of mini scooters,” Mr. Lee said. “I used to have a cuter one because girls ‘oohed’ about it a lot, but I replaced it with a sportier one.”
The type of mini scooters popular among college students are what the industry refers to as “classic scooters.” They have small, usually metal frames, carry a 50-cubic centimeter engine and are single-seated. Most domestically made ones cost 1- to 2 million won, such as the Daerim A-four, HSRC Venus and Kimko Sooner.
According to Auction, an Internet shopping mall, the site’s customers bought 1,100 classic scooters in the first quarter of 2005, but in the third quarter, 2,300 scooters were sold. Out of the shoppers, Auction said, the number of female bikers had also increased significantly.
“People used to stare at the female scooter riders because they were so rare,” Kang A-reum, a college student who said she bought her Venus six months ago after “she fell in love with the scooter at first sight.”
“Nowadays, female scooter riders are really common. I see them riding around everywhere,” she said.
As the number of young scooter riders rises, so does their level of organization. Riders have started to form clubs and set up Web message boards.
One online club, Club Venus, has more than 16,600 members, most of whom are college students. Its members discuss mechanics, the merits of owning classic metal-framed ones versus the newer plastic models and the simple joys of scooter travel.
The club’s most recent organized trip was to Gangchon, in the city of Chuncheon. It took them three and a half hours to get there from Seoul, something an automobile could have done in a little over one hour.
Some 30 mini scooters ran along the highway in a line, blaring their horns at the bigger cars that honked back. On the way back, buses and trucks on the road blew so much exhaust at the riders that they couldn’t stop coughing. Taxi drivers rushed past them, sometimes shouting curses.
“It usually takes more than a month to get really used to this,” said Cho Jong-hoon, a 20-year-old who blushed when asked where he went on his scooter. A new member of the group, it has been only two weeks since he bought his first scooter from a friend. “I think I’m slowing down the group. They stop and check to see if everyone is following behind.”
But he said one thing that most embarrassed him was when all 30 scooters had to stop at a gas station at one of the highways, where there is no “self-service.” Each rider had to pay 5,000 won to have his or her tank filled, but the worker at the station wasn’t happy about supplying a bit of oil for 30 different mini scooters waiting in a long line.
“He called us a nuisance, but what can we say,” Mr. Cho said. “We love our scooters so much that we call them our babies.”

by Lee Min-a
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